All I Really Need to Know about Improv I Learned in Middle School, and then subsequently forgot before I started really doing improv

The first time I took a class with Tami Nelson feels like an age ago, but I still remember exactly how it felt to walk in that door, what shoes she was wearing, and how she asked me if I had any prior experience doing improv. I replied that although I’d seen some good shows at the UCB theater the last few years, my experience learning improv had taken place in Middle School. If a Thirty four year-old comes into a class and mentions that they used to do a lot of improv ten years ago their experience seems reasonable, a twenty four year old saying the same thing looks silly-dumb. It is incredibly easy to imagine someone being dismissive or even sarcastic about that, but of course, Tami was neither.

From age 11 to 13 I took an improv class for an hour every weekday at school. I also performed street comedy at Renaissance Festivals eight hours a day every weekend November-October, April-May, and rehearsed February-March.

There are some things that I learned back in my Tween years. 


Improv as a Rennie

Few folks know much about what it means to be a paid performer at a Rennisance Festival. Lots of people make weird assumptions. This is understandable. So, Ima tell you about my experience at Cavalier Days Pleasure Faire when I was a kid. Our cast, which was about 30 performers, rehearsed for six hour days Saturday and Sunday for five weeks before the start of the show run. There is no script for a Rennisance Festival. Your characters are your own invention and are not derived from anything written. We are strictly aiming to be comedians and not historical reenactors. All those things are important to know up front.

The day is spent: warming up with shortform games (I used to know over 45: I kinda wish I still had that list), practicing dialect with a coach, learning historically appropriate background, working on status, working on physical comedy, crafting your lazzi & bits, and work shopping your character. We also learn, toward the end of the rehearsal schedule, specifically how to interact with an audience. Most Renaissance Festivals are shit. A good one will have actors that are rarely ever talking to each other, but are interacting directly with the audience constantly.

The show itself is a grueling schedule that goes basically like this:

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Call at 8:00

Cast warm up at 8:30

9:00 opening ceremony/sketch

10:00 wander around and entertain people who are suspicious of you- stay in character despite the fact that the whole thing is one long heckler interaction

12:00 be in a parade

12:45 sketchprov

1:00 acting funny while eating publicly

1:30 make up something big and funny to do that a crowd of people will stand around and watch

2:30 be in a show

3:30 try to pee while wearing pantaloons

3:45 walk around entertaining people then end up being hit on as the patrons are becoming increasingly drunk

4:30 on a stage doing something stupid somewhere

5:00 sing publicly while trying to get laughs

5:30 fight off drunks in character

6:00 ending day sketch

6:30 attempt to peal sweaty or rain drenched velvet and crap off your body –eat or get drunk- and then prepare to sleep in a tent so you can wake up in the morning and do it again.

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I know Renfairs are something of a cultural punch line and not a lot of people’s cup of tea; however, it deserves some respect as a place to witness an almost masochistic dedication to performing and getting a laugh.

Improv as a Fairy
I also worked at the Texas Rennisance Festival for ten years, which was like what I described above, but different. At TRF I played a fantasy character and did children’s entertainment. That is a different scene. Have you ever continuously smiled and taken pictures with masses of kids for several hours straight? I used to do that for money.

Yet, there is a tremendous freedom in being a character that is undeniably not realistic or meant to be human. I think everybody who has ever been a monster on stage knows this pleasure. But, can I tell you that it is infinitely more blissful when you do that all day long?

The joy is in being completely outrageous and illogical, while performing, for hours on end. The discipline is in understanding that you can never break character. The big reveal is realizing that “believable” is a synonym for “entertaining”; if you want to suspend someone’s disbelief the only real pathway is in captivating them. Man, I miss the performance muscles I’d built up from having to be captivating for not minutes, but hours.

Improv as a Middle Schooler
I lucked out getting to have a theater teacher in middle school who was a frustrated improviser. She was hilarious, enchanting, and irreverent. Her parents had guilted her into leaving Chicago, coming back home, and getting certified to teach public school. So Connie taught kids how to make up scenes semi-improvisationaly and a bunch of short-form.

Homework is good for us. Both the Renfair and Connie used to give lots of assignments in journals. I kept a stage journal for both faire & class and that encouraged me to think about tools for stagework. My favorite assignment was to sit in a public place and observe fully someone as though they were a character you would play on stage. We would first note their mannerisms, posture, clothes, age, and voice (if it was possible to hear them talk) and then to imagine their mental state and how their thinking might differ from yours. That was good practice.

I remember some of the things I thought were funny when I was in middle school. I thought a character named “The Kinky Sheep” and his pantheon was hilarious. I thought re-writing songs from musicals to make them about a man who had a paper sack for a head was rip-roaring. I thought troll dolls were inherently funny. I thought that the lady who worked the baked potato stand was amusing. I am a funnier person now. Basically, more than anything else, that is just because I am older and as a result I have more life under me. That translates into more understanding of the complexities of human interaction. Depth of experience is where the funny lives. Also, the Kinky Sheep was totally hilarious.